Reform club puts the world right in hours

LIB DEMS IN GLASGOW
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The Independent Online
"God, you are a high-minded lot!" Coming as it did from the Liberal Democrat president, Robert Maclennan, himself high-minded to the ice-flecked limits of Scottish Presbyterian lawyer-liness, that is like God whistling through his teeth at intolerable virtue.

But they are high-minded. The Liberal Democrats were assembled in a flashy warehouse calling itself a conference centre in Glasgow, gravely at work at 10.30am on a Sunday.

The Liberal Democrats work harder than anyone else; they talk more and they propose more reforms. Sunday morning's secular observance involved five consultative sessions - bleak workshops on policy.

I settled for "Reform of the Commons" (chaired by Mr Maclennan), but we were spoilt for thrilling choice between that and overseas aid, energy, higher education and housing.

We had 75 in a hotel suite for our intense devotions. Assume slightly less enthusiasm for energy, Europe and the like and around 350 people spent three hours on a Sunday morning talking reform. It will be the death of them; they are a little too good for the rest of us.

Mr Maclennan's astonishment came after a couple of hours grind about creches in the Commons, ethnic representation, knocking down the lovely Palace of Westminster and weighting the votes of MPs inside Parliament by constituency size ... but not a hint of fixing things in any way advantageous to the Liberal Democrats.

A Dr Cameron - not the gruff but cuddly character from television, but a grim-visaged type you could see eliminating undesirable elements, denounced the present Commons as "senile afflicted with dementia and ready to be put down".

He also yearned, did this Jacobin, to be rid of Charles Barry's uselessly, sumptuous palace on the Thames.

This line had a lot of takers. You are wasting your time talking aesthetics to the Liberal Democrats. Show them Gothic revival pinnacles and murals and they spit utilitarian saliva.

They also want Parliament shifted from its present, corrupt, comfortable metropolitan spot to somewhere ... well, they weren't sure where but appreciably nearer Glasgow. The idea forms in the mind of a breeze-block leisure- complex - or this being the Lib Dems, a diligence-complex - rising in the midst of Hebden Bridge.

To be fair, against such fervour the party had its own built-in stabiliser in Michael Ryle, a Commons clerk employed to explain that most of this wouldn't actually work.

To a lady who wanted a creche on the site of the Parliament rifle range, he explained it was under the House of Lords, out of reach, under-ventilated and likely to depress any baby not depressed already at being the offspring of an MP.

To the man who had gloriously called for weighting MPs' votes - the Western Isles, with their thin clutch of voters to have perhaps part of an MP - he was very sweet. Pensioners need more attention so should command more votes in the Commons; but non-pensioners have to find the money so they should be better represented. Let's chuck it shall we?

Mr Ryle had been hired as a bucket of sand, or bucket of sense, to extinguish the legislative combustion into which people who spend Sunday morning in constitutional debate are too likely to burst.

Not that they all talked rot. There was a proposal on uncompetitive Tory election spending which no bucket should obstruct.

"What about an expenditure tax?" asked John Thompson. As a party spent more on elections and propaganda it should be taxed more. "The tax should become punitive at pounds 5m," said Mr Thompson gaily. "But zero rated below pounds 1.5m." The workshop permitted itself a giggle. This, give or take a few bob, is what the Lib Dems have to spend.

Mr Maclellan's cry for a moment's self-interest had been met.

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